(The writer of this article wishes to remain anonymous)
According to a recent article by urban scholar Richard Florida, religious diversity contributes to economic development by contributing to the openness and overall well-being of a nation. Singapore has been cited as a case in point. While religious diversity has long been a feature of Singapore’s socio-cultural landscape, the question is how are we managing it today?
In a recent blog post by Minister for National Development Mr Khaw Boon Wan, the government is considering housing small churches or Chinese temples within multi-story developments that will allow them to share facilities such as prayer halls, classrooms, and carparks. This is due to concerns from various quarters over rising property prices and rental rates, which have priced smaller religious organisations out of the market for space.
This is problematic for several reasons.
First, these developments will not provide the sacredness that religious space requires. A church or temple provide a spatial avenue for followers to participate in rites and prayers, providing them with a tangible physical surrounding that draws their sight to intangible values or ideals. For this reason, religious spaces need to be imbued with a sense of transcendence. Such transcendence will be lacking if religious space is co-shared and constantly ‘rotated’ among different organisations.
Second, the developments are likely to be located at the fringe of industrial areas. This contravenes centuries of urban planning practice, which places religious institutions at the heart of the city. Notice how many ancient cities have been built around a cathedral, temple, agora? Religion provides the moral underpinnings of society, their physical location being both a constant reminder of the values they contain and a space for citizens to congregate or simply take refuge from the hustle and bustle of city-living. What does placing religious organisations at the fringe of the city say about our moral vision for Singapore?
Lastly, the fact that religious organisations can no longer afford rising property prices and rent points towards a disturbing shift in our valuation of land and space. Rather than thinking about the people that this space will serve, we think about what material gains we can reap from redeveloping it and leasing it out to some commercial use. This reflects the encroachment of capitalist values into spiritual virtue. If we can allow this to happen to our physical space, what more the mind space of our children? Are we so instrumental that land-use has always to correlate with profit?
A Just and Inclusive City
Singapore prides itself as a liveable and competitive city. And it deserves to, having achieved an astonishing record of rapid economic growth and urban development. But we must now grow beyond liveability to embrace sociability. The urban theorist Susan Fainstein has long called for urban planners to build a ‘just city’ that encourages citizen participation and the inclusion of marginalized or under-represented citizens.
As Singapore approach our 50th year, we too must as a nation do our fair share of introspection. What sort of city do we want to build and leave for our children? Do we want all our shiny and technologically advanced buildings to turn Singapore into some sort of sci-fi dystopia, devoid of humanity? Or do we want to preserve our religious and social diversity by designing a just and inclusive city? To do that, we will need to incorporate religious and social spaces into the very heart of the city.